The Koban System – Japan’s Assurance of Safety

The Concept of Safety for the Japanese

Traveling is for risk takers; it is intended for people who are happy outside of their comfort zones and let their feet and their soul take them places. However, not everyone is comfortable about putting one’s self at risk. For most travelers, safety is still their number one priority.

For the Japanese, they have done what they can to eliminate the dangers looming about them. They have designed and made their structures safe. Their homes are disaster resistant, there are early warning systems for calamities and other natural disasters. Roads are pedestrian friendly, there are lanes for bicycles and other pedestrians. There are speed limits on main highways as well. Japan is one of the safest countries to visit, even for first-time travelers.  

However, travelers must remember that if natural calamities do not strike, they are still at risk from dangers caused by accidents. They are also at risk of falling victim to wrong-doers; a feat the government still finds difficult to fully control. This is why the Japanese government continues to find ways to solve the issues, one solution would be through the Koban system.

The Japanese Community Police and Police Box System

What is known as the koban, in the Japanese language,  is a small police unit located in residential communities. It is known to be the smallest faction of Japan’s police department which has been intended to provide safety assurance and protection to their localities. There is an entire department in Japan’s police force which handles the operations, monitoring of the koban and even deployment and rotation of the staff.

The main goal of the koban is to engage in the daily operations of the localities and ensure the safety of the locals. It is also a means of letting locals feel safer because once they know where these police boxes are located, they can easily call for help. On top of that, the presence of the koban adds to the prevention of crimes such as robbery, theft, and kidnapping.

The koban literally translates to “police box” because these are designed to be small police outposts. They occupy very small spaces and are located in highly populated streets. Most often than not, these are found near shopping malls, train stations, residential towns or neighborhoods, and even in busy intersections.

Regular Police Box vs Residential Police box

A regular police box is located in many major roads, intersections, and districts. They are intended for the protection of the public from crimes like theft and robbery. They can respond to fires, accidents, and other emergencies. They can also provide direct access to any agency needed. There was a time in Japan where kobans are located only in places where it is highly recognized.

Residential police boxes, on the other hand, are located in small towns and neighborhoods. Their sole role is to protect the population living in their jurisdiction. In regular police boxes, there are rotations and schedules for shiftings. The main department names officers that will be assigned to regular police boxes on a periodical basis.

On the other hand, residential police boxes usually employ police officers that can stay with the role long term. They are called residential police boxes because they literally provide residence to the officer in question. Usually, they live in the town being considered or in they live in the quarters found in the koban itself. They can take their families with them during this deployment.

The History of the Japanese Police Box

According to history, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department was established in the middle of the 1800s as a means of providing protection to locals and residents. Because of this, they have established stations called kobansho to monitor intersections and other populated areas in Tokyo.

In the 1880s, the government then expanded the presence of the kobansho to many places all over Japan. After just a couple of years, it has been mandated by the law to provide residential police boxes in most (if not all) lands in Japan. Before the 1800s ended, there are more than 11,000 residential police boxes and almost 2,000 police boxes. Today, there are more than 7,000 police boxes deployed in many koban stations all over Japan.

Design of Japanese Koban

There are different sizes and designs for the koban. There are police boxes which are large in size and can accommodate up to ten officers and staff. Other police boxes are small and can usually accommodate two to three only. This is why there is a wide variety of koban design all over Japan, there is no standard which is followed.

By English: Abasaa 日本語: あばさー (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, there are certain requirements for each koban. The usual design of a koban is that it is made up of one or two stories, this is how most kobans are sized but not all. All kobans must have an office for the officers, equipped with computers where they can log their activities and reports. There is also a community room that the officers use as receiving areas for residents and locals who are there to file their complaints and incident reports.

Most police boxes are also equipped with maps so that they could easily help tourists who are lost in their neighborhood. There are also small vehicles deployed in every Koban to allow officers to respond in much shorter times. This is due to the fact that officers from police boxes are the first to respond to accidents, crimes, and other incidents.

Each koban is equipped with a kitchen or a break room for the officers to use. This serves as a pantry or a small dining area, especially for those that are going through long or night shifts. For residential police boxes, these are also usually equipped with sleeping quarters because officers are usually deployed for long periods of time.

Most importantly, their most unique characteristic is the installation of red lights near the top of their offices. This reminds the locals of their presence and their role in the safety of the community. The red light can be a means to make known to criminals of the presence of police officers.

Officers and Counselors of the Japanese Koban System

Police Box Chief

It is the role of the Police Box Chief to handle four to five jurisdictions at a time. This means that he or she handles about four or five police boxes at a time. it is their role to monitor crime rate in their area of responsibility. It is also their role to train their freshly hired staff. On top of that, they ensure strategic scheduling and training for their staff. Sometimes it is also their role to escalate pending issues and crimes to higher departments.

Police Box Staff

It is common to see newly trained police officers guarding kobans in the country. This is due to the fact that guiding kobans is the first deployment role of newly trained officers. It teaches them clerical work, trains them in ensuring crime-safety and also teaches them about client relations. On the other hand, it is also common to see retiring police officers guiding these newly trained officers. However, this is not true for all kobans in Japan.

What is important to note is that it is rare to see police women out in the field guarding down police boxes. This is especially true for places that require night shift and for single-staffed kobans. It is also important to ensure the safety of the officers themselves.

Police Box Counselors

These persons are hired usually for the purpose of holding ground in the office while the police staff is on roaming duties. The good thing about this is the fact that they are usually retired police officers that can help with the day to day operations of the koban.

Although not all places in Japan have this, many of the Japanese police boxes employ part-time staff that can handle the non-criminal related work load. For instance, these persons are assigned to help tourists with directions. Also the counselors can help in providing feedback to residents and locals. They can handle all lost and found cases as well.

Duties and Services of the Police Box

For those who wish to visit police boxes, especially foreign tourists, it is important to remember that officers prefer speaking in the Japanese language. There are places where officers can speak and understand straight English but not all. It might be a good idea to keep in mind a few phrases that can be helpful in scenarios like this.  

The police box or the koban was established for a reason and that is to ensure the safety of locals. However, the officers in a police box can have their limitations as well. So, for first-time travelers, it is best to know what the role of the koban is to the Japanese community. This is so asking for help will not become a problem in times of need.

One of the most important roles of the police box is to provide access to emergency services. Since the officers in a police box are the first to respond to an incident, they should have direct contact to emergency hotlines. This is in the case of fire, medical emergencies, and other unwanted events. The officers can easily communicate with any agency required. Through this, assistance to the incident can be easily sent.

Another important role of the Japanese police box is to take in and record police reports. It is also the responsibility of the officers, especially the head officer, to report it to their cluster heads or immediate bosses. Crime such as robbery, burglary, or theft is very common in a country and an area which is highly populated. Some of this include Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Residents will surely feel much safer if they know that the law is after those that have done them harm. Police reports on these kinds of crimes are usually recorded in police boxes before being escalated to higher authorities.

There are much simpler roles that the police box plays. One of these would be a lost and found station. Locals, tourists, residents and the like can take items they found to the police boxes. The officers can then see in their records if there is anything reported lost that matches the condition of the item found. They can notify the owner and the item can be picked up, with the assurance to whom it truly belongs.

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Since places in Japan rarely experience crimes on a daily basis, officers in police boxes still have other less dangerous roles to play. They can serve as an information center that will provide answers to queries regarding locations and access. For instance, they can provide information on how to locate and reach nearest hospitals and schools. They can also provide assistance in finding tourist destinations within the area.

All in all, when police officers in kobans have no other thing to do, they are usually there to stand ground. They shall observe their surroundings for potential crimes. Also, their presence gives comfort to residents living in the area.

Modern Issues of the Japanese Koban

With the system in place for centuries, the koban ideology has fully developed with its age. They have nearly perfected the system and ensured the safety of locals and residents for centuries. However, the changing culture of modernized Japan provided issues in the system.

For instance, increasing density in highly populated areas like Ginza in Tokyo especially during the travel seasons of February, March, April, and May have increased the demand for kobans. This means that there are more officers required at this time of the year. Because of this, and the scarcity of staff, many kobans around Japan remain empty.

At times when an immediate response is needed, the koban will be left unmanned. Another issue that forces residential police boxes to decrease in number through the decades; due to the same reason Changes to the system is needed to save the Japanese police boxes all.